Ukulele you, and tiptoe through the tulips


By Isaac Hamlet
[email protected]

For a man who has won praise from Rolling Stone, gained international recognition, and put down tracks in countries from the UK to Japan, Jake Shimabukuro is remarkably easy to talk to.

Even with 40 shows ahead of him between Oct. 10 and Nov. 21 — including 8 p.m. Saturday at the Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St. — the ukulele player speaks with the easy-going rhythm of someone just returned from a long, wandering walk on a nice day.

“It’s not that intimidating of an instrument; I think people love how easy [ukuleles] are to learn,” he said. “They’ve grown in popularity all over the world so much that they’ve even started to outsell guitars.”

Over the course of his musical career, Shimabukuro has helped bring the ukulele into the public eye. He has trod so much unexplored ground with the instrument that Anthony Arnone, a University of Iowa associate professor of music, shows clips of the musician to his classes.

“No one else really does what [Shimaburkuro] does,” said Arnone, who, like the 38-year-old Shimabukuro, is originally from Hawaii. “You don’t really see people play ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on ukulele.”

Shimaburkuro first gained attention in 2006 with a YouTube video of him performing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on ukulele. Since then his popularity has boomed. He has collaborated with such musical icons as Alan Parsons, Yo-Yo Ma, and Jimmy Buffett.

“I learned to play the instrument when I was about 4 years old,” Shimabukuro said. “I was born in Hawaii, and my mom played; I was always surrounded by it. So I knew early on that I loved it.”

Russell Schomers, a club leader in the Johnson County Ukulele Social Club. Group meetings occur on the third Sunday of each month and welcome 12 to 18 ukulele players at Uptown Bills, 730 S. Dubuque St.

“Prior to the Internet, it was hard to know much about the less-common instruments such as the ukulele,” he said. “I find that people are pleasantly surprised to see how approachable it is. Having only four strings, it’s definitely easier to get started on than most instruments.  When our group plays, we get lots of smiles from folks who stop in to listen.”

It’s these kinds of small instants of happiness people find in music that help fuel Shimabukuro’s love of performance. He wants his audiences to be entertained and to “walk away with a smile.”

“People associate the instrument with small, bubbly songs,” Arnone said. “The way it’s been used in movies and commercials, people see a ukulele, a pineapple, and a grass skirt and think, ‘That’s Hawaii.’ ”

Shimabukuro’s music does a lot to break that mold. His albums have displayed his skill in pop, classic rock, and original pieces that rest near the realms of folk and rock.

“My new album’s called Travel; it’s my first one in three years,” he said. “It’s supposed to encapsulate the places I’ve been over the years. This is probably my most diverse album and probably one of the most honest.”

In a TED Talk given in 2010, Shimabukuro said, “If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place.”

“I love performance,” he said. “It takes everything you have physically and emotionally, when you walk off stage you can feel it, and it’s a good kind of ache. I hope the audience feels that, too. It’s just fun.”

Jake Shimabukuro
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington
Admission: $30-$33

Facebook Comments